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Lost Spitalfields

July 29, 2017
by the gentle author

Looking towards Spitalfields from Aldgate East

London can be a grief-inducing city. Everyone loves the London they first knew, whether as the place they grew up or the city they arrived in, and everyone loses it. As the years pass, the city bound with your formative experience changes, bearing less and less resemblance to the place you discovered. Your London is taken from you. Your sense of loss grows until eventually your memory of the London you remember becomes more vivid than the London you see before you and you become a stranger in the place that you know best. This is what London can do to you.

In Spitalfields, the experience has been especially poignant in recent years with the redevelopment of the Market and the demolition of the Fruit & Wool Exchange. Yet these photographs reveal another Spitalfields that only a few people remember, this is lost Spitalfields.

Spital Sq was an eighteenth century square linking Bishopsgate with the Market that was destroyed within living memory, existing now only as a phantom presence in these murky old photographs and in the fond remembrance of senior East Enders. On the eastern side of Spitalfields, the nineteenth century terraces of Mile End New Town were erased in ‘slum clearances’ and replaced with blocks of social housing while, to the north, the vast Bishopsgate Goodsyard was burned to the ground in a fire that lasted for days in 1964.

Yet contemplating the history of loss in Spitalfields sets even these events within a sobering perspective. Only a feint pencil sketch of the tower records the Priory of St Mary which stood upon the site of Spital Sq until Henry VIII ‘dissolved’ it and turned the land into his artillery ground. Constructing the Eastern Counties Railway in the eighteen-thirties destroyed hundreds of homes and those residents who were displaced moved into Shoreditch, creating the overcrowded neighbourhood which became known as the Old Nichol. And it was a process that was repeated when the line was extended down to Liverpool St. Meanwhile, Commercial St was cut through Spitalfields from Aldgate to Shoreditch to transport traffic more swiftly from the docks, wreaking destruction through densely inhabited streets in the mid-nineteenth century.

Look back at these elegiac photos of what was lost in Spitalfields before your time, reconcile yourself to the loss of the past and then brace yourself for the future that is arriving.

Spital Sq, only St Botolph’s Hall and number 37 survive today

Spital Sq photographed in 1909

Church Passage, Spital Sq, 1733, photographed in 1909 – only the market buildings survive.

17 Spital Sq, 1725

25 Spital Sq, 1733

23 Spital Sq, 1733

20 Spital Sq, 1723

20 Spital Sq, 1723

20 Spital Sq, 1732

32 Spital Sq, 1739

32 Spital Sq, 1739

5 Whites Row, 1714

6/7 Spring Walk, 1819

Buxton St, 1850

Buxton St, 1850

Former King Edward Institution, 1864, Deal St

36 Crispin St, 1713

7 Wilkes St, 1722

10 & 11 Norton Folgate, 1810 – photographed in 1909

Norton Folgate Court House, Folgate St,  photographed in 1909

52 & 9a Artillery Passage, 1680s

Bishopsgate Goods Station, 1881

Shepherd’s Place arch, 1820, leading to Tenter St – photographed 1909

You may also like to read about

The Haggerston Nobody Knows

The Lost Squares of Stepney

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim McDermott permalink
    July 29, 2017

    It tears at the heart-strings to consider what’s gone (and what’s replaced it). Every time I open my copy of ‘Lost London’ I feel something akin to bereavement. On the other hand, had something as lovely as Spital Square survived it would probably now be ‘occupied’ by absentee property investors, and use of its public space strictly regulated.

  2. July 29, 2017

    A super set of pics on one it shows two boot scrapers on the steps. Artillery Passage fascinates me just for pedestrians has it a military history? Poet John

  3. Barbara Elsmore permalink
    July 29, 2017

    It is so reassuring to know of the existence of these photographs and that they in a place of safekeeping. It is good to see some internal photographs amongst them. Thank you for bringing them into the light.

  4. Libby permalink
    July 29, 2017

    What a beautiful opening paragraph. Exactly how it is for me in my London.

  5. Helen Breen permalink
    July 29, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, indeed much was lost. Spital Square looks too lovely to survive. Beautiful doorways at 20 and 32 Spital Square. Reminds me somewhat of the squares in Dublin. Interior woodworking at #23 is stunning.

    Thanks as always…

  6. July 29, 2017

    What haunting and poignant photographs! My ancestors lived in No.20 Spital Square – probably from when it was built until the 1780s and I have been researching the family history and writing a blog around my 4 x great aunt’s diary, written 1776. She often refers to her father “going to town” and he would have been at 20 Spital Square from where he and his brother ran their silk-weaving business – extraordinary to see inside the house. Her Grandmother lived at No.9 Spital Square and she mentions having dinner there and also staying there for the night. It is wonderful that these photographs exist – for me they create an acute awareness of the race of time.

  7. Kassie permalink
    July 29, 2017

    Thank you for such a poignant entry–I have just returned home from a brief London visit, and even in the few years I have been away, I am stunned by the changes. And yet, it is the same in New York, where my old Italian neighborhood is being wiped out by chain stores. While in London, I was thrilled to finally visit E Pellici and received such a warm welcome and had such delicious food! And then, to my dismay,as I was passing by, I spotted Chanel in the Spitalfields market. All thanks to you for sharing Spitalfields Life with all of us. You are an important keeper of the flame.

  8. Catherine permalink
    July 29, 2017

    I agree with Libby. I’m spending too much time thinking of the past here, and I only moved here in the Seventies, but had visited as a young child. Thank you for these.

  9. July 30, 2017

    The story you tell, which involves the kind of wholesale destruction on which I have always thought American planners thrive, is as instructive as it is tragic. Expedient pragmatism appears to be a more or less universal compulsion and it is practiced, with a free hand, wherever space is at a premium and the pressures of any marketplace – whatever form they may take – lead rather than follow. Yet confronting the losses that are so eloquently documented in these photographs is another thing altogether. There is a visceral component that longs to remember, reflect, and perpetuate. Here in America, we are suspicious of presumably sentimental reasons for holding on to things that are no longer as useful as they were. Architecture can be re-purposed – and it is; even so, the context out of which it came, as well as the life that pulsates around it, no longer remains. When a thing comes out of a set of purposes and values that are as dead as the doornails that are swept away in dumpsters, the thing has lost its meaning. Can other meanings be imposed? Perhaps. Can something that is merely “pretty” survive because of aesthetics alone? As a person who is perhaps gratuitously attached to the past, I always hope so.

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